Monday, July 31, 2006

MSM, Blogs and My Disappointment Over Pajamasmedia 

The other day, Megan McArdle wrote on that popular misconception that blogs will replace the MSM. I agree with her that each medium has strengths and weaknesses that can, together, create more value than individually either promises (hmm, a trade between two willing participants making each richer, sounds like the market principle of free trade in action). I was, however, reminded of my disappointment over what I expected from the promises of Pajamasmedia (nee OSM). Perhaps by dissatisfaction is a personal matter, perhaps it is a result of what seems to me an uninspiring user interface, but I still see that the role I had hoped Pajamasmedia would play is still a largely unfilled role.

To understand my disappointment, it is important to look at the genesis of the effort. Fresh from the public unmasking of the Rather/Mapes attempted drive-by on the Bush campaign and following the MSM unquestioning lock-step with Kerry's response to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claims ("but I am a War Hero©, of course I'm telling the truth"), there was much dissatisfaction in what is often referred to as the "right-leaning" blogosphere with the accuracy and truth in what is often presented as news. In the wake of this sentiment Roger Simon, Charles Johnson and a few others began discussing the idea of using the blog as the new news medium, a people-powered interactive reporting tool. This concept saw its infancy in the Iraq invasion, with the now famous ex-blogger Raed anticipating the attack with both resignation and horror and has subsequently been validated during the peaceful revolutions of Georgia and Lebanon, the tragic suffering of the South East Asia tsunami and the unblinking vigilance of the continuous stream of various milbloggers as they take their turn in the sandbox. But how does this connect to blog-based news reporting in general and Pajamasmedia in particular?

While I am not a trained professional in journalism, I see the news process as being largely analogous to any general data collection activity. As such, there are three main steps: collect the data/news, decide what data/news is relevant and accurate and the analyze the data/news for meaning and trends. In the news business the first is the traditionally the domain of the reporter, the second the editor and the last the op-ed writer. Yes, there is some cross-over, as reporters are expected and required to verify the accuracy of their articles and often must draw from multiple sources for their final product, but from a process perspective I still this as an editorial vice collection role. Over the next few days I plan to look a bit more in depth at each of these roles, starting today with the Collection activity.


As Megan so accurately put forth, collection is a very time consuming activity that is completely dependent upon physical location. From that perspective, I have always felt it both naive and fanciful to imagine the blogosphere being able to effectively supplant the vast network of reporters the MSM and wire services support. True, often ground-level blog reports seem to be more accurate than many MSM reports (e.g. Katrina, Iraq), but however much value these reports have provided they are still secondary to reports coming from traditional MSM sources. This partly a matter of the sheer volume of traditional reports, but also a factor is that these blog reports are quite often ignored by MSM news. The virtual monopoly on this data that the blogosphere enjoys may be because of the MSM's general mistrust of blogs, its inability to independently verify the reports, simple ignorance as the existence of the reports or a combination of these and other reasons. The conjecture is often that as more people get their news from blogs and other on-line sources the value and importance of these blog reports in shaping important decisions will grow, but barring a continued complete lack of awareness and business savvy on behalf of the MSM the increased value of these reports will also work to improve the product offered by the MSM as well. Over the long run, though, the paucity of blog-reports compared to MSM-reports will continue to make this an erratic niche factor.

As Megan also noted, individuals who need to do activities other than collect and report news/data in order to put food on their table and clothes on their children will never be able to dedicate the same amount of time and effort to the activity as those who are paid to do so. Likewise, blog reporting is often done at the intersection of interest and proximity, both of which are highly coincidental. For example, Beirut is a large, modern city with many young, politically interested citizens. In hindsight having extensive and varied real-time reports during the Cedar Revolution was only to be expected. Compare that, however, to the dearth of blog reporting from Afghanistan or the jungles of the Philippines where the fight against Abu Sayyef Group militants happens on a daily basis. Even if interested, bloggers, with relatively few exceptions, cannot travel extensively on their own dime or devote the time waiting in order to be at the right place at the right time to get to the stories they care about. Granted, the quality of material from these exceptions (Michael Totten, Michael Yon and Bill Roggio, to name only the first three to come to mind) is, itself, exceptional, but while the three named funded their reporting forays using a currently unconventional shareware model, it is important to remember that they are still individuals that have chosen reporting and journalism as a profession and not the citizen-reporter often touted as the blogosphere's answer to the MSM. In short, a collection model relying primarily upon blog-reports will be heavy on high-action, exciting events in major population centers and sparse on low-intensity coverage in remote locations. While it may be true that most items of interest will happen where more people live, one must be honest and say this formula leaves many gaps uncovered.

As much as it pains me to say it, the major hurdle I see to maximizing the potential importance of citizen-reporters is credibility. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in this regard the essence, if not the particulars, of an oft repeated MSM slam against blogs has relevance. While one may question an MSM reporter's honesty, bias and accuracy (and it does happen often), they are, if nothing else, "their bastard." Warts and all, the MSM goes to its reporters over bloggers because it knows them and can lay their hands upon them. There are several cases of bloggers "making the big time" and being coopted by the MSM (e.g. the 'fore mentioned Raed), but this is a process that happens only after the MSM is confident it knows the individual blogger. It might seem the rampant use of anonymous sources speaks against this theory, but not really, as there is always at least one layer of "reporter" between the source and the consumer. The point is, even in cases like the most stridently tilted AP or Reuters reporter, as part of an organization they are, at least in theory, accountable to that organization for their work product and professionalism. The MSM looks at, for example, the brothers at Iraq the Model and asks "who is making sure that these fellows are really who they say they are, where they say they are and are accurately reporting the events as they saw it?" And, given the recent popularity of sock puppetry, who can blame them in theory.

As good and helpful as the citizen reported may be, is it really necessary for the blogosphere to replace the existing MSM reporting structure in order to achieve its goal (whatever that goal may be)? Some may think I've built a strawman around this argument since most thoughtful consideration of blog reporting has, to my knowledge, always acknowledged a continuing MSM presence and contribution. But I do think that the most ardent supporters of citizen journalism place too much emphasis on just such a revolution. Not only is this idea fanciful and completely unrealistic, but I also believe the benefits may be over sold. While I am a big believer in the empowering of the individual, I also feel that the value of specialization is often taken for granted. The real musical revolution in the '60s was not Rock & Roll (that was just the form it took), but rather the ascendancy of the singer-songwriter. While this represented in many ways a gain to the individual artist, I have often wondered if we now live in a world that will never again see song-writers like Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter and never hear singers the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme or Billie Holliday. Likewise, few could argue that the works of the great masters such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bach and Mozart were a direct result of a system of patronage and specialization starting from a young age that no longer exists. Modern technology easily allows any dilettante to script, direct and edit their own film, I am hard pressed to find anything offered on the web that can hold my interest for more than ten minutes. Contrast this with a film my daughters have recently fallen in love with: The Wizard of Oz. Although almost seventy years old and crafted under a studio system any in Hollywood would decry as archaic, it still holds the magic to captivate the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of children and adults alike. So, too, the value of specialization, experience and practice the professional reporter can bring to the collection of news and information must be appreciated.

What, then, can Net Media bring to the Collection process? The first step has been the empowering of the individual citizen-reporter to get their story out there, and quite a giant leap it has been. But where to next? Perhaps the formation of an independent but transparent authority to verify individual citizen-reporters? If there was an equivalent of an internet wire service, where not only contributed stories on all sorts of topics all over the world could be retrieved, but also where the accuracy and validity of individual contributors could be recorded, tracked and then evaluated. This would allow the braver MSM outlets to establish their own threshold of comfort for accepting reports, eventually providing them with quicker access to quality product and making a wider assortment news available to more consumers. This could also be used to affect the traditional wire services, as the comparative quality of their product and services would not initially be subject to the same scrutiny and evaluation, making it less of a known quantity.

Many bloggers have their "favorite" MSM or wire service whipping boys, but a better way to affect the quality and accuracy of their product is to become a true customer. I'm not sure what the business model for AP or Reuters is, but I would imagine that news organization buy the feed and in return get speed and quantity. How can blogs and Net Media affect the pocketbooks to reward and encourage consistent, reliable, accurate reporting and to discourage inaccurate, biased or intentionally disingenuous and purposefully misleading reporting? I don't know, but I strongly suspect that as long as blogs and Net Media remain outside this business model their influence over the practice of those inside is limited.

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